The Lede
Bubble-tops rule the roost in Chennai & surrounds
Bubble-tops rule the roost in Chennai & surrounds|Cibe Chakravarthy

Outdated Methodology & Old Data Help Private Drinking Water Suppliers Thrive

Tamil Nadu, in the third year of drought, is unable to regulate the private water can industry

Cibe Chakravarthy

Cibe Chakravarthy

In Chennai’s Kodungaiyur, shops and provision stores have drinking water for sale stored in large containers. They charge Rs 15 for a plastic pot and Rs 18 for a bubble top can. These large white containers stand outside shops, selling like hot cakes.

In RS Aqua, one such shop for drinking water in Ezhil Nagar, Kodungaiyur, an employee told The Lede that the water is supplied from Red Hills weekly. The owner however was unavailable for details of the extraction unit.

Though Chennai’s CMWSSB (Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board), better known as Metro Water, primarily caters to the residents here, during summer, the demand for drinking water goes up, creating a niche market.

An employee at another packaged drinking water manufacturing company situated in Selavayal, Kodungaiyur told The Lede - “The original borewell in the factory site was sealed by government. Now we get supply from another borewell at Marambedu near Red Hills. We get around 24,000 litres daily. As both the land and lorry tanker belongs to the owner, he does not face any issue.”

A Thirsty Metropolis

There are over a crore mouths thirsting for water in the metropolis of Greater Chennai.

Water for Chennai comes largely from the Chembarambakkam reservoir located in Kanchipuram district, the Red Hills reservoir in Tiruvallur district and Poondi, also located in the same district.

Apart from this, a drinking water project ensures supply from the Veeranam reservoir in Cuddalore district. Some water from the Telugu Ganga project from Andhra Pradesh and desalination plants in Nemmeli and Minjur add to the supply.

But Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kanchipuram are in the midst of their fourth year of drought. Since the floods of 2015, rainfall has been deficient every year, forcing the state government and private water suppliers to dig deep for solutions.

Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kanchipuram are three of the most urbanised districts in the state. This means that not only is demand high but supply of ground water is under great stress due to concretisation.

But with no options left – as all reservoirs, lakes and water bodies have hit dead storage levels – all suppliers of water, both government and private, are pumping the ground.

The Curious Case Of Red Hills

Red Hills is a prize catch for private water extraction firms. It is close to two large reservoirs - Puzhal and Sholavaram – meaning that the ground water aquifer here is a constant source and able to replenish better.

But in 2009, that was not the case. Red Hills marked “over-exploited” in the ground water data compiled by the State Ground and Surface Water Research Data Centre.

Red Hills reservoir is at dead storage levels
Red Hills reservoir is at dead storage levels

Strangely in 2011, it was moved to “semi-critical” zone, a step down from the danger levels.

In 2013, even more surprisingly, it was moved to “safe” zone signalling business prospects for the private water can firms.

This is strange considering that this April’s groundwater level reading in Tiruvallur district this year has fallen to 6.48 metres from 3.99 in April 2013, as per the state’s Ground and Surface Water Research Data Centre.

Considering the three years of drought which followed the floods in 2015 and the Puzhal reservoir being at zero level, the stress on ground water should logically be greater in this region.

The question rankles – how did an “over-exploited” zone actually become available for commercial extraction in just two years?

The answer lies in outdated data.

Old Data, Useless Data

As early as 2009, the ground water data by the state showed that all the firkas (units in a block) in Chennai city had been over-exploited by up to 406%.

But take a look at this table. Chennai city continued to remain tagged an over-exploited zone from 2009 onwards while nearly 10 units in Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kanchipuram have been moved down from the over-exploited category.

Outdated Methodology & Old Data Help Private Drinking Water Suppliers Thrive

To date, officials in state and central governments are working with data from 2013. When repeatedly queried about more recent data, state government officials said that they are only using the 2013 data while central government officials said they only worked with what the state gave them.

Using the 2013 data, which is no longer relevant, the state continues to allow private drinking water firms to operate and extract water in zones that are in danger of over-exploitation.

The Courts Step In

Following orders from the Tamil Nadu Green Tribunal in 2013 and subsequent government orders in 2014, 52 bubble-top manufacturing companies found to be operating in over-exploited and critical areas were closed down.

Another 100 companies without proper permits too were ordered shut.

All of these aggrieved companies and some others, moved the Madras High Court against the government’s orders for closure.

Madras High Court Justice SM Subramaniam in his verdict on 04 October 2018 upheld the Green Tribunal order.

Commercial extraction of groundwater was restricted to semi-critical and safe firkas.

The judge noted in the verdict that ground water is to be preserved in public trust for the future generations.

But this was not something that the people and the packaged drinking water manufacturers association would settle with.

Weeks later, manufacturers decided to strike, only to call it off in the next 24 hours after the state promised to intervene.

Clearly the private drinking water firms wielded a lot more power than the state or the courts had bargained for.

Anantha Narayanan, Secretary, State Packaged Drinking Water Manufacturers Association told The Lede – “We have around 400 companies from Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kanchipuram in our association and all are licensed companies. In area such as Red Hills, licences vary based on output volume ranging from 10,000 litres per day to 50,000 litres per day.”

In 2018, it was also reported by the 23rd Lok Sabha Standing Committee on Ground Water that the state still has 374 factories operating in the over-exploited and critical blocks.

These factories are pumping out nearly 8,95,000 litres of ground water daily.

Outdated Methodology & Old Data Help Private Drinking Water Suppliers Thrive

As per the Standing Committee report, around 3700 factories from Tamil Nadu have food safety licences.

Food safety licences are required for private drinking water can firms in order to ensure that their water supply is suitable for drinking.

Outdated Methodology & Old Data Help Private Drinking Water Suppliers Thrive

However it is not clear how many among them are operating with valid water availability certificates.

Water availability certificates are issued by the state Public Works Department – this allows the firm to extract water from the zones where groundwater is not over-exploited.

These permissions though, in practice, are not followed or implemented.

The state itself in its 2011 guidelines has noted - “… that some of the firms which apply Ground Water Availability Certificate valid for three years and obtain its ‘No Objection Certificate’ to establish their firms in the beginning, do not turn up afterwards to this Ground Water Wing to renew the validity of the Certificate issued to them. However, these firms are obtaining the renewal of the “No Objection Certificate” every year from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board even after the expiry of the validity of Ground Water Availability Certificate… and running their business/industry/activity surreptitiously.”

The Madras High Court too observed in 2018 – “the State is unable to establish that an effective mechanism is provided for strict implementation of the regulations”.

State government officials are reluctant to share the data of the number of packaged drinking water factories operating in the state and the quantity of water commercially extracted in a day across different blocks.

Poor Methodology

Why is it so important to constantly monitor and regulate groundwater?

Because over-exploitation of groundwater along the coastline can lead to serious consequences. Like salt water intrusion into a fresh water aquifer.

Take the case of Minjur, originally a fresh water block. In 2011 it was declared saline.

After two years, another 41 firkas in the state were added to the over-exploited and critical blocks.

Outdated Methodology & Old Data Help Private Drinking Water Suppliers Thrive

We have already shown how old data has proven to be more of a bane in terms of conserving groundwater.

The bigger problem, according to experts, is that even the available data is flawed. The methodology, they say, is just not good enough.

“We need to have a comprehensive methodology that includes water accounting,” Dr Veena Srinivasan, convenor, Centre for Environment and Development, told The Lede. “Water accounting includes both the surface and ground water. We should be able to figure out the quantity of water available in surface and sub-surface, the quantity being used, the kind of factories operating in the region, the quantity of water reused and recycled etc.”

Monitoring a well is different from monitoring an aquifer, as it is only the aquifer that gets recharged when it rains, but not the well. This also applies to rain water harvesting and water shed management.

It is hence obvious that ground water management is quite complicated due to technical difficulties in ground water assessment. It is also obvious that it is not possible to find out the location where degree of ground water extraction is high using the current methodology.

The centre is in the process of updating the methodology used to calculate the groundwater levels.

Dr Himanshu Kulkarni, executive director and secretary at Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM), told The Lede – “The new methodology is robust in the sense; it takes into account the granular data and the status of aquifer. It would enhance the data by bringing out the degree of extraction, and where it is extracted more, the degree of availability and nature”.

Dr Kulkarni was also a part of the high level committee on this methodology.

The state government too is working on a new set of rules to control the damage being done.

S Raja, Executive Engineer at the state ground water department told The Lede - “The state government is set to release a new set of guidelines and regulations. It includes digitalisation of monitoring system for ground water abstraction. While new factories will not be permitted in over-exploited blocks, all existing factories however will not be shut down. Only the quantity of extraction would be regulated on volumetric basis”.

Retired Public Works Department engineer and water expert Thirunavukkarasu said that urbanisation and concretisation of water bodies had created the problem in the first place.

Blaming the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority for approving high rise constructions without ensuring proper water conservation protocols, like rain water harvesting, ground water recharging, sewage water and waste water treatment, told The Lede - “CMDA has approved building plans where there was no corporation water supply previously. The rampant ground water extraction was continuing along the OMR for years unchecked and as a result the ground water has been over-exploited.”

“In order to remove the dependence on private water tankers, the metro water board must bring all these residential complexes into the corporation water supply network,” he added.

Incidentally the Niti Aayog in report last year stated that “21 major cities including Chennai are expected to reach zero ground water levels by 2020 affecting access for 100 million people.”

Urbanisation has been stated as one of the major reasons for this.

It was predicted all around that the heavy downpour in 2015 would be followed by at least two years of drought.

Yet water conservation measures were stepped up only when summer arrives in the city.

The government too is helpless as it is unable to meet demand and private water can companies are making a killing at the expense of the consumer.

Excessive dependence on private water supply has already depleted the groundwater sources of three districts, leaving little scope for water in the decades to come, let alone sustainable development and preserving water for next generation.